LONDON — For nearly 50 years, the British novelist and ghost writer Rosemary Kingsland has been keeping a secret. Since her school years in London, she never talked about it to her family, to her friends — or even to the father of her three sons.
Now, she’s broken the seal. Kingsland’s memoir, “The Secret Life of a Schoolgirl,” arriving in the U.S. next week, chronicles her colorful — and completely dysfunctional — family. But it’s also a detailed account of her two-year love affair with the then-married Richard Burton, which began when she was 14 and he was 29.
“I couldn’t tell a soul. I thought I could keep getting away with it if my mother and school didn’t find out. My life in those years was almost schizophrenic,” says Kingsland, 62, over a glass of mineral water at the Covent Garden Hotel. “And I couldn’t stop. I was mindlessly aroused. The whole relationship was sexual, sensual and erotic. There was pure electricity between us.”
And after the affair ended, Kingsland says there was still no reason to talk about it. “I’ve never been a girlie type, I’ve never confided in my girlfriends.”
Kingsland, whose novels include “After the Ball Was Over” and “Cassata,” says she still views the affair with a sense of pleasure. “There’s no resentment. I wasn’t abused or wronged. I see it as an unusual and unique memory.”
Her adolescent fantasy sprung to life one chilly night after she escaped from a dance she’d been taken to by her philandering father, George, an officer in the British Army. She was already a Burton fan, having seen the matinee idol perform on stage at the Old Vic, and on screen.
That night at the Cave, a bar near the Old Vic that she knew Burton frequented, the two met. He took her walking by the river, spouting Shakespeare and Welsh poems, and regaled her with stories of ancient Egypt and Greece. Burton wasn’t just a pretty face: The Oxford graduate devoured mountains of books.
“It was very much a Professor Higgins and Eliza relationship,” says Kingsland. “He had never really been around young girls, and was wielding his power — not in an exploitative way — but for his ego. Richard knew he could hold an audience of one, and that his ego could shine brighter when he was the only one performing.”
Their physical relationship began a few months later, when he took her to a swank flat in Covent Garden after a dinner of beer, whisky and cheese sandwiches.
“I should have been asking myself all the right questions,” Kingsland writes. “Did I really want this? Was it safe? Would I get into trouble? Of all these questions, the last one was surely the most important, drummed into me from all our conversations back at school. Girls who did it, got into trouble. But I had decided it was time to grow up, become a woman. And I couldn’t think of anyone I would rather lose my virginity to than this man, whose beauty and power astonished me each time I looked at him….The thought was no longer frightening to me.”
Virgin or not, the 14-year-old Rose already felt grown up. Since the age of nine, she had been taking care of her posh, but perpetually broke, family.
“I had a great sense of responsibility for looking after my family. I had more or less been doing the cooking, cleaning and chores,” Kingsland says, adding she was more of a parent than a child to her mother. “My mother suffered from incredible depression, although we didn’t know what it was called then. My father would escape out of the house, my mother would escape inside the house.”
Indeed, Kingsland’s parents were so oblivious to their children’s comings and goings (her younger brother Freddy had lain in bed for days with an abscess in his eye before anyone even noticed he was missing) that Kingsland was free to sneak in and out of the house for her meetings at the Covent Garden flat.
Almost inevitably, Kingsland became pregnant. Burton arranged for an abortion and the relationship fizzled after that. The two only met once more — after Burton saw Kingsland by chance in her uniform and discovered how old she was.
“It was a time when the word jailbait didn’t exist, and Richard told me it was the most dangerous thing he had ever done. He said it was illegal. It never occurred to me in that moment that what we were doing was so serious,” says Kingsland. (Never mind that Burton was already married to Sybil Williams and having a simultaneous affair with actress Claire Bloom, which Kingsland knew nothing about at the time).
“Emotionally, I went back to being a schoolgirl. I didn’t have a boyfriend until my 20s. Richard was a very hard act to follow,” Kingsland says with a laugh.
So why a memoir now? “Three family members, including my parents, died in the space of four years, and it seemed like so many ends to so many chapters. I guess I’m letting it all hang out — which is really not in my personality.”